geek

Iran So Far for…Tea

Some time ago, I made a necessary pit stop to The Jasmine Pearl, a teashop owned by a very nice couple in Northeast Portland. I had been in before, and they were one of the few places I could pick up Yunnan-grown “Golden Needles” at a decent price. It was the perfect black tea, the shop was perfectly close, and I was perfectly broke; it worked itself out.

While conversing with the owners over a cup of GABA oolong, they made mention of a friend in Iran who was bringing back some Persian-grown tea. I thought they had said “pearls tea” at first. My ears burned when they corrected me.  My “Tea WANT!” list wasn’t entirely in dire need of new additions, but the idea of tea from a growing region I wasn’t familiar with peaked my interest. Up to that point, all I knew about Persian tea was the way they served it – steeped in enough sugar to make a Southern belle blush.


When I returned home, I immediately went to digging up information about Iran’s tea history. My occidental notions of a backward country in the middle of the desert surrounded by rugs and dervishes were “a tad” inaccurate. Iran actually had a rather rich tea history, thanks to its close proximity to China – one that pre-dated European interest by a good 200 years. The town of Lahijan in the north even had their own Robert Fortune-type character. The biggest irony was that he stole seedlings from the British in India…who – in turn – had originally stolen from the Chinese.

Cultivation in Gilan province began roughly around 1900, while the first modern tea factory was built some thirty-ish years later. To this day, Iran alone produces 60,000 tons of black tea a year. The biggest tragedy, though, is that the U.S. sees nary a leaf of it. If it isn’t readily apparent to you, fair reader, relations between the United States and Iran are piss-poor at best. Reasons for this are quite valid, and I won’t go into any of that here. This is a tea blog, not a political soapbox.

It’s not entirely impossible to acquire Iranian-grown tea as an American, but chances are one would have to turn to an international site. And strong though my tea itch was, international shipping charges did much to quell the urge. That, however, didn’t stop me from posting several whiny forum queries wondering where I could acquire some without having to pound at an embargo.

Enter TeaGeek.net. Yet again.

Again, Michael J. Coffey – that sleuth of the steep – chimed in with a proverbial, “I got what’choo NEED!” (Yes, I can even hear him pounding the pavement with a pimp cane while saying that.)

Available exclusively to TeaGeek members was a tea gained through mysterious methods dubbed “Treasure of Persia”.  He mentioned he’d received it in an unnamed plastic bag, and the route used to obtain it made some drug deals pale by comparison. That made this one-off sample all the more interesting.

The leaves for this were jet black, long, wide, and oozing with malt-scent. The aroma reminded me of chocolate covered berries mixed with dry smoke.  In appearance, they resembled another TeaGeek score – the old-woman-handmade Georgian tea I had. They even smelled alike. For a moment there, I wondered if a fast one had been pulled on us.  On close inspection, though, there were subtle differences. The cut of the Persian leaves were smaller, the rolling method seemed different, and the leaves weren’t as tippy as the Georgian. Strikingly similar, but still different beasts.

There weren’t any established brewing instructions for this, so I had to go with what I was familiar with. Like the Georgian, this looked strong enough to take a four-minute steep, but I wasn’t sure what leaf amount to use. I went balls-in with a tablespoon-worth steeped in 8oz of boiling water for the allotted four.

The result was an amber-ish liquor with a dry and smoky nose, not unlike Russian Caravan or a subtle Taiwanese Lapsang Souchong. They certainly had my attention with whiff alone. On taste, the impression shifted ever-so-awesomely to a sip with a nutty forefront. That was quickly followed up with a fruity segue to a malty middle. As far as the finish was concerned, it was all Cavendish smokiness that tapered off handsomely.

Do you know how this tea made me feel? Like I was sitting on a weather-worn rock bedazzled in jewels, silks, and gold-trimmed whatevers while Disney-esque Jasmine-like maidens fanned large feathers at me. Oh, and there was an elephant for shade because…well…all Persian fantasies require an elephant. This didn’t even need to be sweetened to death in the typical Persian tea style, but I’m sure the approach would work wonders. A very outstanding cup of U.S.-embargoed hotness.

For more information from the TeaGeek, go HERE.

The inspiration for the “punny” title of this blog can be found HERE. Don’t watch if you have no cheesy sense of humor.

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Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

“Thé”-ater: Tea Time at the Movies

My mother is an idea gal – always has been. The part that’s most frustrating – especially for me, the eldest of her brood – is that she is right 90% of the time. I think she missed her calling as the head of a newspaper, the magnate of an advertising agency or the moderator for a think tank. Her braingems should be bottled and sold on the black market for six figures. I say this because…well…she’s the reason this entry exists.

One phrase from her, just one phrase: “You should do movie reviews with tea.”

At first I scoffed at the idea, but then I tossed it around in my head (over a cup of tea). I thought back to the last few summer movies I’d seen, mulled over my opinions but also what teas I felt like drinking after them. Surprisingly, finding matches didn’t take that long.

Here are my thoughts:

Thor

I was not excited for this movie at all when I first saw the trailer. It resembled Flash Gordon by way of Iron Man – cheesy but visceral. The choice for director also made my brow furrow. What did Kenneth Branagh know about directing a comic book movie?! Granted, he could easily pull off “EPIC!” if he had, too…but a Space Viking movie? Secondly, it was Thor. I don’t know anyone that cares about the wing-helmeted thunder god.

What gave me some measure of hope was the writer who penned the script. I was already a fan of J. Michael Straczynski from his five-year magnum opus, Babylon 5. He also had extensive experience as a comic book writer. If anyone could make the foundation translate to cinema, he could. And, boy, did he.

The combination of tongue-in-cheek, fish-outta-water, and Shakespearean posturing made this one of the most entertaining trips to the multiplex in some time. Marvel really knows how to dial up the “FUN” factor for an intro to summer. In hindsight, nothing much appeared to happen, but I look back on it fondly.

Tea Match: “Golden-Tipped Assam”

Assams tend to be thick, malty teas usually used as the base for wake-up breakfast blends. Tippier Assams – I’ve found – possess a honey-like texture to them, similar to a Golden Yunnan. That smooth sweetness along with the burly malt bite are a good compliment to a movie featuring a golden-haired, muscle-bound god with a ridiculously large hammer.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

The first Pirates of the Caribbean did the impossible; it was a well-crafted and witty movie inspired by a theme-park ride and single-handedly brought back the swashbuckler. To that, I say, “Bravo.” Unfortunately, that movie had siblings. Snot-nosed, whiny, fat, bloated siblings. The two follow-ups were a complete and utter mess. They were well executed, special effects were top-notch, but the story (or what passed for one) was pure seagull splatter. I was not looking forward to a fourth outing.

On a whim, I caught a late showing of On Stranger Tides and found myself…not hating it. Oh, it was still as drivel-ish as her two predecessors, it looked cheaper than it was, and making Cap’n Jack Sparrow a protagonist was a horrible idea, but it at least tried to match the medium scale and old-school feel of the first one. I won’t see it again, but it didn’t leave a poor taste in my mouth.

Tea Match: “Kombucha”

No, I don’t mean the bacterially-cultured “mushroom tea”. Kombu is the Japanese word for “kelp or seaweed”. I personally haven’t had it, but I’ve eaten the key ingredient. Kelp has a very sweetly vegetal, salty profile, and I assume the same could be said for its infused namesake. Unfortunately, it shares the name with another “tea” that utilizes steeped bacteria…and tastes like iced vinegar. Seeing a fourth Pirates movie was exactly like that name/flavor confusion – a well-meaning but unfortunately-named oddity.

Kung Fu Panda 2

The first Kung Fu Panda was lightning in a f**king bottle. It succeeded with what it set out to do – tell a story of a kung fu fanboy given the opportunity to be martial arts legend. That premise alone is every chop-socky geek’s wet dream. The fact that it also stayed true to the trappings of the martial arts genre helped it to transcend its Dreamworks label. Thankfully, it was also successful with mainstream audiences. (It starred a panda; this was a given.)

A sequel was inevitable, and Dreamworks was hit-or-miss with animated follow-ups. I hoped they’d learned their lesson from the last three Shrek movies. In my opinion, they succeeded. KP2 continues where its predecessor left off and explores its protagonist’s background – one that is steeped in prophecy and folklore. I even got a little man-teary towards the end, a good sign.

Tea Match: “Keemun Hao Ya B (with cream and sugar)”

Keemun is a Chinese black (or “red”) tea with an interesting flavor profile. It is almost as malty as an Assam, but also possesses shades of sweetness and smokiness. If done right, it brews to a bold crimson and – when sipped slowly – imparts its nuances gradually. Hoa Ya is a grade known for its silver tippy buds and delicate delivery. The “B” sub-variety tends to be a tad more rough around the edges – as is Kung Fu Panda 2 in comparison to its predecessor. But it takes cream and sugar well, making it more palatable for the kiddies.

X-Men: First Class

Like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, X-Men suffered from a severe case of Sh**ty-Sequelitis. Well, third time’s a charm, according to the Powers That Be. However, to justify the existence of yet another prequel after the disastrous Wolverine movie, some major liberties had to be taken. In a brilliant move, they adopted a typical comic book motif to do this. They ret-conned and pretended the last two X-movies never existed.

For the most part, the maneuver paid off. While none of the secondary ensemble characters do much in the movie other than look badass or attractive, the dynamic between a young, brash Charles Xavier and a hot-headed (but suave) Erik Lensherr – soon-to-be Professor X and Magneto, respectively – is surprisingly well-crafted. There are plot-holes abound, special effects misfires, and some dreadful acting from a certain blonde that makes Keanu look nuanced. All said, it holds up well. Time will tell if it’s as memorable as the first two.

Tea Match: “English Breakfast (with a blended Keemun/Assam base)”

There is no set recipe for English Breakfast; the only adherence that must be made is to its strength. The blend should zing! you awake in a matter of sips. Tasting good is optional. I’ve heard some schools of thought state that Keemun is the preferred foundation, while others say Assam. What is agreed upon is that it must have an ensemble of ingredients that jolt the drinker upright. EB does this, and so does the new X.

Super 8

MOAR LENSFLARE!!!”…seems to be the battle-cry of writer-director-producer-mindf**ker, J.J. Abrams. I’m not sure when this cinematographic calling card began, but it was most apparent in his reboot of the Star Trek franchise. In Super 8, he tones the flare down a bit but keeps just enough to give the movie a retro feel – as was his intention. This pays homage to the Steven Spielberg sci-fi flicks he grew up with and it shows.

All the ingredients are there: Unseen monster from space? Check. Comedy relief in the form of a high-voiced fat kid? Check. Shadowy military conspiracy? Check. Coming of age romance? Check. Mix and serve. If it had one major flaw – and it’s a doozie – it’s that the movie has no real identity. The strongest parts were the Spielbergian/kiddie character scenes. Everything else seemed “meh” by comparison. This could’ve been a true 80s sci-fi send-up if it weren’t so schizophrenic.

Tea Match: “Matcha-Iri Genmaicha”

I love matcha (Japanese powdered tea), but I loathe genmaicha (Japanese “poor man’s” tea…blended with rice). Put the two together, and you have something that I begrudgingly enjoy. The nuttiness of the rice is downplayed by the kelp-like sweetness of the matcha. The blend is even better if the green tea base is a higher-grade sencha rather than crude banchatian xiao cheng. This is as conflicted a blend as the elements of Super 8 are. Parts work, parts don’t. The experience is watchable/drinkable, pretty to look at, but – in the end – forgettable.

To conclude, I had way too much fun doing this. My mother’s brain wins again. The summer’s still young, and I can’t wait to ponder what brews up well with other blockbusters. I wonder if I could sneak a teapot into the theater. Hrm. Probably a subject for another blog.

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Wednesday, June 15th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

From Opium to Oolong – Tea from Thailand

When I thought of Thailand in terms of tea, the only ones that came to mind were Thai sweet tea and Boba (or “bubble”) tea. The former of which was a glass of sugar with a little bit of tea in it; the latter I hated beyond measure. (Tapioca belonged in pudding…not tea.) As a result, it was easy to dismiss Thai tea culture as something only spoken of in giggle-fitted whispers.

A travel blog posted by Leafjoy corrected my preconceived notions by relating a rather interesting story. Apparently, in Northern Thailand – a place that’d become a tribal melting pot – they grew their own tea. Chiang Rai province was infamous for it’s old cash crop standby – poppies, the primary ingredient for opium. That had since changed to more orthodox offerings such as fruit and tea plants. The entry arched my “Tea WANT!” eyebrow. I hate it when it arches.

Courtesy of Leafjoy.com

I figured that acquiring some in recent months would be a distant and unlikely possibility, but serendipity had other things in store. On my Smith Teamaker jaunt to pick up the new Mao Feng Gin, I ran into Steven Smith himself.

“I have something you have to try,” he said.

He brought out a green bag adorned in Asiatic lettering and poured out some blue-green, balled oolong-ish leaves. The “blue tea” – as he called it – was given to him as a sample from a business contact in Canada. Said contact was curious if Smith wanted to carry it. In turn, he was curious what I thought of it. Neither of us were quite sure what the “blue tea” moniker meant, though. Steven also didn’t have any other details for me other than the tea itself and the growing region (Doi Tung). I thanked him profusely and went home to do a little digging and brewing.

The blue tea search left me quite stumped, however. I could find no mention of blue tea other than a listing on the Mariage Frères site for an “Opium Hill” tea. It looked the same as the sample I received from Smith. Unfortunately, their information on it – other than being of Thai origin – was sparse.

Dejected, I did what any tea geek would do in that situation. I turned to a more well-versed and aptly-named Tea Geek. He informed me that blue tea (or “qingcha”) was another given name for wulong/oolong. It was a blanket category for all semi-oxidized teas because of the blue-ish hue they take on after drying. It was a bit of a misnomer, much like the Western “black tea” label.

The leaves for this were “tricksy” in their appearance. On sight alone, they looked like any normal green-style oolong I came across. The semi-oxidized, blue-green color, and the ball-fisted rolling technique were not too different from Chinese or Taiwanese oolongs. If I didn’t know any better, I would say I was looking at a Bai Hao/Oriental Beauty – a light-roasted one at that. What informed me that I was dealing with something completely different was the aroma. I smelled berries; rather, three distinct ones – strawberries, grapes, and blueberries – fused together. It was like wrapping a Fruit Roll-Up around one’s nose.

Given the entirely new experience on sight and smell, there was no specific brewing template to go by. A good default with an aromatic, light-roasted oolong was multiple infusions in a gaiwan with 190F water. Basically, gongfu-style but less formal. I did exactly that with four steeps – two at thirty seconds, two at forty – 1 tsp. worth of leaf-balls.

First infusion (thirty seconds): I’ll be honest, it sorta smelled like pondwater. The liquor also looked river-green. The taste, however – while possessing a vegetal forefront – transitioned to a wonderfully floral body and a subtle fruit finish.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): This time the liquor took on a brighter color and a more aromatic scent – buttery like lotus blossoms. The floral character also echoed in the taste but with something more akin to jasmine. That could’ve been the somewhat dry forefront. The mid-body was more melon-like this time, very even in comparison to the first. What little aftertaste there was passed by with a smooth texture.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Same visual palette but with an indiscernible nose. It was neither an earthy or floral scent but rather something “clean”. In sharp contrast, the taste took on the berry notes I detected in the dry, fisted leaves. Very prevalent in the middle. Again, the aftertaste tapered off pleasantly.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): The liquor color had lightened significantly to a pale yellow, more in line with some spring flush green teas. The taste still had plenty to offer, though. It alternated between fruity, creamy and floral – like a grape that’d been dipped in honey-vanilla and wrapped in petals for warmth. The finish possessed more of a vegetal kick, signifying that it was almost at the end of its yield.

This Thai goodie didn’t fade, though, until about infusion #7, much to my surprise. The flavor remained pretty even throughout, no major detractions from its original smoothness. That and it never took on the metallic astringency of an over-brewed Ti Kwan Yin.

While the initial steam aroma was off-putting on the first infusion, this was a very reliable introductory oolong. I’m not sure it would hold up in a taste-test against a good Wu Yi or Ali Shan, but right out of the starting gate, I’d say Thailand is off to a damn good start. This was the Shiraz of oolongs.

Special Thanks to:

Smith Teamaker – For providing the sample, and for terrific tea talk as always. I always feel at home there.

Michael J. Coffey (purveyor of TeaGeek.net) – For having the world’s most magnificently ironic name name ever, and for clearing up the “blue” debacle. He’s a fountain of tea knowledge.

Leafjoy – For their informative tea blog and for giving me permission to use one of their photographs.

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Friday, May 13th, 2011 Steep Stories 1 Comment

An Ode to Geek Chicks

AN ODE TO GEEK CHICKS

There exists in rare doses,
Those cut from an ornate fabric so priceless,
That to utter the name or title
Would barely cover the grace.

Women etched from the finest marble
Who know what it means to speak
In a language invented
From the mind of a novelist.

Feminine figures fused with scholars
Who drink from a chalice reserved
For those oft considered
Outcasts of the norm.

Girls that change roles,
Estrogen in combat,
To the mind’s eye
Nothing dares meet its grandeur.

One who can outwit
A fictional creature
With nary a sweat as the
Die is cast in their favor.

Maidens of the stars
Who dream in novas
As vessels take flight
For parts unknown in the vast.

Virtual combatants swathed
In clothes reserved for men,
Spectacles donned
And opposable thumbs ready.

Oh, so rare a breed
To the public eye, yet
Existing and thriving
Beyond me…still shrouded.

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Saturday, November 22nd, 2008 Poetry No Comments

I work for tea money.

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